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Should you use your old smartphone as a dashcam? The pros and concerns

Should you use your old smartphone as a dashcam? The pros and concerns

A mobile phone is so much more than just a phone nowadays - it has become home to our photos, music, conversations, ideas, games, identity, work, social media, shopping, and money. There’s an app for everything from tracking your sleep to transcribing a presentation in real-time and even turning your smartphone into a dash cam, or dashphone, thanks to almost 5 million apps.

But can you use an old iPhone or Android phone as a dash cam, or is this a bad idea?

Using an old smartphone as a dash cam - will it work?

There is no reason you can’t use your smartphone as a dashcam. Many people have. After all, a dash cam is just a camera plugged into your car to record your drive. Your smartphone has one of the best cameras on the market, so why not double up as a dash cam to save money and the environment?

Smartphones can be powerful dashcams with the right app, and there is no shortage of dash phone and recording apps in the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store: AutoGuard, AutoBoy, Daily Roads Voyager, Smart Dash, and Driver Dashcam App, to name a few.

Using a smartphone as a dash cam - is it legal?

USA

Various laws in the United States regulate the use of mobile phones and other electronics (such as GPS) by drivers. Different states take different approaches. Some laws affect only novice or commercial drivers, while others affect all drivers. Some laws target handheld devices only, vehicle other laws affect both handheld and hands-free devices. In states like Nevada, Kentucky, Maryland, and New York, it’s legal to mount a device on the car's dashboard as long as it doesn't obstruct your line of sight.

Driving in Alaska, Texas, and Washington? Check your state’s laws on your device's permitted size and placement before you mount your phone on your dashboard.

Canada

According to BC’s Motor Vehicle Act, a person driving cannot use the features or functions of a phone. This is the same across Canada, including Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and other provinces and territories. Plugging your phone in is not an offense, nor is mounting a phone on the dash or plugging it into a phone charger — as long as you’re not interacting with the device. Phones mounted in your car are legally allowed to operate as GPS devices as long as the route is pre-programmed before driving and voice directions are coming through the vehicle's speakers. In other words, it is legal to mount your smartphone on your dashboard to be used as a dashcam, just make sure it’s on a steady car mount (so you're not busy fishing any fallen phones from the floor), not blocking your line of sight, and you're not swiping, tapping, or texting.

But can a dash cam app replace a dash cam?

To answer this question, our team installed the Driver: Dash Cam and Cloud Sync App on the iPhone 13 Pro Max and tested it for over a week.

Let us know if you've tried any of the other apps, such as the Autoboy Dash Cam app. We would love to hear about the pros and cons.

Turning a smartphone into a dashcam - our top concerns

Using an old phone as a dashcam can be convenient and cost-effective for recording footage while driving. However, weighing the pros and cons is important before deciding if it's the right choice for you.

Concern: Video quality, especially at nighttime and low-light environments

One of the biggest issues of using a smartphone as a dash cam is the quality of the video footage. While smartphones have improved significantly in recent years, they may not provide the same level of video quality as a dedicated dashcam.

You’re getting a higher res picture with your smartphone thanks to the 12MP camera, but is that enough to give you crystal clear details on freeze frames? Take the GoPro 10, a 23MP camera - yet experts like Vortex Radar and EastCoastJeepSRT still can't get readable details from its freeze frame stills.

And the problem amplifies you start recording in low light conditions or at high speeds. The front and rear dash cams have night vision capabilities to give you clean recordings in all light situations, day, night, tunnel, underground parking, etc. Dash cam interior cameras are fitted with IR lights for infrared capabilities, which makes it possible for taxi and rideshare drivers to catch passengers and in-cabin misbehaviors in the dark. Your smartphone's camera does not have infrared capabilities. Try taking a selfie with your smartphone inside a dark closet, and that’s pretty much what your nighttime in-cabin video will look like.

Product: VIOFO A129 Plus Duo IR with 2K QHD front camera and Full HD IR camera. The IR (infrared) camera uses OmniVision with breakthrough ultra-low-light technology.

Concern: No loop recording, no increments - massive video files

Instead of loop recording in increments, the Driver app records our drive onto your phone in one giant recording. According to the developers, they offered the loop function before but found that the feature didn’t play nicely with the mapping functionality of the app. And since loop recording wasn’t as useful when reporting incidents, they changed to recording trips as a whole.

Having one file for the entire drive makes it easy to manage and browse through the clips library, but it does create another problem - the potential loss of important dashcam footage due to file corruption or lack of storage space.

Because the Driver App doesn’t loop or overwrite old files, all files are saved on your smartphone, taking up storage space. There is the option to auto-delete videos after a set time, but all old files will be deleted, whether it’s uneventful driving or an accident clip. There is no option to lock important files, offload the files to a microSD card, or allocate a preset storage quote for the app.

Your videos are safe with a BlackVue dash cam, thanks to standard features like Event Files Overwrite Protection, Adaptative Format-Free File Management, SD Card Failure Alert and Scheduled Reboots.

Concern: Device overheating

While our official Driver App test was conducted with an iPhone 13 Pro Max, we have also installed the app on an iPhone 12 Pro Max, iPhone 11, and the Google Pixel 6 - and we did not run into overheating problems with any of them. The phones got significantly warm, but not to the point when the phone’s lithium battery melted or exploded. We know lithium batteries don’t do well under heat (and poor-quality batteries tend to explode when it gets hot) so we may need to test the Driver app again in the summertime. To be fair, dash cams also heat up after hours of continuous recording. But because dash cams are designed to be left on the dash, they are built to withstand a reasonable amount of heat.

Leaving your car under the sun on a hot summer day? Unlike other dash cams and smartphones where the device simply shuts off when overheating is detected, the FineVu GX1000 constantly monitors the ambient temperature and will automatically scale down power consumption to allow the dash cam to cool down, while still providing you with parking monitoring and recording.

Concern: Battery life

If you're using your phone as a dashcam for long periods, it is guaranteed to drain the battery quickly. A 20-minute video capture drained 16% of our phone’s battery when we tested the app. You may need to keep a charging cable, a power bank, or any portable power source in your car to ensure your phone stays powered.

Concern: Data, storage, and memory usage

The Driver App doesn’t work without an active Internet connection as the app needs to track your location for the map function - and it is going to consume a lot of your data plan if you have the app on for your entire drive.

Data usage is not the only thing you need to consider. Phone storage stores data such as apps, photos, videos, and files necessary for the phone to run. You may argue that your phone comes with a 512GB of storage, which is already more than what most dash cams can support, typically 32GB to 128GB. But don't forget, while the dash cam dedicates the entire 32GB on your microSD card for your driving footage, the storage space on your smartphone is divided among all the apps, including photos, music, videos, etc.

Need footage of your long drives? With FineVu GX1000's Smart Time Lapse feaure, you can record up to 2,325 mins on a 32GB microSD card without overwriting - that's more than a day and a half of continuous driving footage.

If the running memory range is exceeded, your phone will become laggy, and the dash cam app might freeze and stop recording. This is especially true if you have the dash cam app in the background recording the drive while you're running other apps while you're driving. Simply put, your smartphone lagging is typically caused by too many games and apps being opened simultaneously or running in the background. Newer Pro Max iPhones might be able to handle the load, but older phones might not and you will experience problems more often than you'd like.

Concern: Privacy and data collection

To use the app (or any other dash phone apps), you must consent to the developer’s terms and conditions, including the App Privacy practices. For instance, for the Driver App, the developer may collect the following data and may use it for marketing and advertising, analytics, and product research and development: your location, user ID, device ID, email address, product interaction, and app performance data. These are pretty standard information most app developers collect.

Concern: Parking mode, bait car

You wouldn’t think of leaving your valuables in the car, and as if that weren't enough, a smartphone dangling in plain sight draws the attention of passing thieves. Dash cams (especially a dashcam without a screen display) are designed to blend in with your car to deliver the most discreet setup.

Smartphones, however, will stick out regardless of where you have them mounted in your car unless you have them stowed away in the glove box.

You can't get more discreet than the Thinkware U1000. With its signature wedge design, the U1000 mounts right against the windshield and cleverly blends in with the rest of your car for a super stealthy setup. Check out our Dash Cam Installation Gallery to see how the Thinkware U1000 and other dash cams will look in your car.

Concern: The perfect placement

Depending on the size of your smartphone, finding a suitable spot to mount the smartphone could be a challenge, and even more so if you intend on using the selfie camera for in-cabin recording, too.

Whether you’re using a 2-in-1 front-and-interior dash cam or one that comes in separate units, the dash cam is built with discreetness in mind. It doesn’t matter if you have a wedge-shaped, a hanging mount, or a cylindrical dash cam, all these are designed to be mounted right on the windshield, behind the rearview mirror, and out of the driver’s line of sight.

The Driver App requires at least the iPhone XS, which is about 5.64” H x 2.79” W - pretty big to be discreet regardless of where you have it mounted. And don’t forget, if you’re using both the front and selfie cameras, you need to find that perfect angle that can see the road ahead and in-cabin activity without obstructing your view. Unlike dashcams, where the front camera and the IR camera can be rotated separately to get that perfect angle.

The VIOFO T130 allows you to rotate the lens up to 60-degrees vertically, and 90-degrees horizontally, giving you Full HD recordings at a 165° view of the interior and the driver’s side window in a single movement.

Stop recording - we would recommend the smartphone only if…

If you’re serious about protecting your car and having footage of hit-and-runs and other parking incidents, then you need a dash cam, not a dash phone. But there are occasions where the Driver App comes in handy.

Travel/rental car

Driving an unfamiliar car in unfamiliar areas can be risky, and you must protect yourself. But since you don’t know what car you will be driving or if you’re allowed to install a dash cam in the rental car, you need something flexible, portable, stress-free, and low-cost. Your smartphone is easy to mount and operate, comes with a built-in camera and internal storage, and is easy to remove. You don't have to worry about leaving sticky residue on the dashboard or windshield or routing any cables alongside airbags - all you need is a good suction cup phone mount and a USB charging cable and adapter. The videos can still be used for insurance claims and save you a lot of headaches if you should so unluckily get into an accident.

Replacement camera

When your dash cam breaks down or gets stolen, you need a temporary recording device until you get to the store to buy a replacement dash cam. Using a makeshift dash cam is better than having no dash cam at all - it just makes the most sense to use your smartphone as a dash cam in this case.

Vlog must-have

Recording will start when you launch the app, press that RECORD button, and keep recording until you press the STOP button. So in a way, the app is the perfect vlog accessory - and as long as you’re on the move, your route will continue to be tracked - from car to bike and even on foot. And there is no easier way to share your travel footage with friends and family than from your phone.

Should you use your old phone (iOS or Android) as a dash cam?

The answer ultimately depends on your specific needs and preferences. A smartphone may be a good option if you're looking for a cost-effective and convenient way to temporarily record footage while driving. However, if you need the highest quality video or have concerns about battery life, you may want to consider a dedicated dashcam. Once you have installed a dash cam, you won't ever need to worry about it falling out of the phone mount or forgetting to start the app because a dash cam turns on the moment you start your car. More importantly, when you're not in your car, you can leave a dash cam on with total peace of mind and have better access to more information in case of an accident, theft, or other security issues.

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